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Democratic leftist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has risen to national – and even global – fame from an unlikely position as a young first-time congresswoman from New York.
But now she faces 13 different challengers, including from within her own party as well as Republicans, as she prepares for her first congressional re-election campaign. News of the multiple bids to unseat AOC, however, came as a surprise to many voters on the streets of her district in the Bronx last week.
Some voters still had not heard of the progressive superstar. Others said they would weigh the merits of her rivals as the contests heat up over the summer. But most voiced support, arguing that almost two years since Ocasio-Cortez threw a grenade at the Democratic establishment by ousting incumbent Joe Crowley, her progressive agenda – touting universal healthcare and a Green New Deal – was only now taking hold in the nation’s political capital.
“Give her a chance! We knew who she was when we sent her, that she’d make a noise, and making a noise was why we sent her,” said local businessman Abdul Abbas.
“She’s done good things for the Bronx,” concurred Carol Heraldo. “I like how she presents herself as woman, that she’s firm, that she took what she believed and made it real. We don’t see a lot of young people accomplish a lot because they’re afraid – and she’s not afraid.”
We knew who she was when we sent her, that she’d make a noise, and making a noise was why we sent her
That’s not how all see it. The first-term congresswoman is facing eight Republican and five Democratic candidates aiming to unseat her. Some appear symbolic, with little fundraising potential or appetite for collecting the necessary 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
At her first campaign rally on Saturday, Ocasio-Cortez said she hoped to multiply turnout by four, reaching 60,000 votes in the primary election. She declined to be drawn on the challengers that have lined up to contest her seat.
“I think everyone has a right [to run]. I of course won my seat with a primary,” she told the New York Post. “I would never begrudge anyone trying to run in a primary.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s Republican challengers certainly seem to have their work cut out for them. In 2018 she steamedrolled the Republican candidate by a margin of 78%.
With about $3.4m in her campaigns re-election coffers in a solidly Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez’s Republican challengers probably plan on merely damaging her or securing a bigger national media profile by taking on such a famed opponent.
John Cummings, a former police officer, raised $425,000 in 10 weeks after announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination on Fox & Friends. Jamaican immigrant Scherie Murray gave her first interview to Fox News’s Sean Hannity and raised a similar amount.
But having led a campaign to prevent Amazon from establishing a headquarters in neighboring Long Island City, and established herself as a leading member of “the Squad”, the self-described group of progressive congresswomen that includes Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ocasio-Cortez is a political target.
In a district that hasn’t voted Republican in half a century, the Republican candidates are tackling a candidate who has become a lightning rod for rightwing anger nationally.
“Anything that indicates AOC is vulnerable would be godsend to people who don’t like her or are upset about the Amazon loss of 27,000 jobs in New York,” said veteran Democratic party strategist Hank Sheinkopf, warning: “Politics are unstable across the nation. Things are happening that we haven’t seen or thought about before.”
Strategically speaking, a challenge to one of the most influential voices on the American left also could affect candidates in other, more marginal races. Within New York City, more than three dozen candidates promoting progressive, generational change are taking on congressional incumbents.
In her own district, enthusiasm among supporters for Ocasio-Cortez is unwavering. The Working Families party “knows Ocasio-Cortez will beat any challengers who might arise because she’s fighting tirelessly for her district and her agenda speaks to the people of Queens and the Bronx”, the group said in a statement to the Guardian.
But the Ocasio-Cortez campaign also knows that opposition to her remains deep within the Democratic party establishment. Open warfare broke out in July when the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, took aim at her and her close colleagues in the Squad.
“All these people have is their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
In a tweeted response, Ocasio-Cortez said: “That public ‘whatever’ is called public sentiment. And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country.”
The progressive-moderate split could be clearly discerned, too, in the battle last year over the election of a new Queens district attorney when Tiffany Cabán, an Ocasio-Cortez-backed candidate running on a platform to reduce record levels of incarceration, initially declared victory with a margin of 1,100 votes.
But establishment-backed candidate Melinda Katz demanded a recount and ultimately pulled ahead by 55 votes after a series of court challenges over voter eligibility.
Ocasio-Cortez’s most coherent Democratic challenger to date is former longtime CNBC correspondent and anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Caruso-Cabrera, who published a book in 2011 called You Know I’m Right: More Prosperity, Less Government, is a skeptic of big government and a proponent of free markets.
Caruso-Cabrera is a relatively recent Democratic party member who registered her candidacy last week, appear to be preparing a more serious challenge as she seeks to take on Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary.
“Caruso-Cabrero is as wild a card as AOC was two years ago,” said Sheinkopf. “Caruso-Cabrero is likely to lead a spirited challenge and could be very competitive.”
She certainly fancies her chances.
“I am the daughter and granddaughter of working-class Italian and Cuban immigrants,” Caruso-Cabrera said in a statement. “I am so lucky to have had such a wonderful career and I want everybody to have the opportunity that I’ve had. That’s why I’m running.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign declined to comment on the challenge. But people close to the campaign said Caruso-Cabrera could be AOC’s most potent opponent at least from the Democratic side, even though she represents a radically different vision of the party.
“It’ll be interesting if she decides to hide her libertarian-conservative ideology,” one source said. “Certain conservatives are upset that AOC beat Crowley and over Amazon so there maybe certain Koch-type figures who have had some role in recruiting her. I don’t think [Caruso-Cabrera] is going to get young Democrats from around the country to work for her, but you could see young conservative activists in the district because they all spend so much time condemning her politics or lusting after her.”
However, candidates on both sides will be looking to raise money from outside the relatively poor, racially diverse district. Ocasio-Cortez’s fame has long transcended the borders of her hardscrabble patch of the Bronx.
“AOC can raise an awful lot of money throughout the country from all sorts of people, but within the district there’s not an awful lot of money to raise,” said Sheinkopf.